Every beer drinker is at least a little familiar with what the ABV stat on labels means, even if it’s just seeing the number and knowing how many you’re willing to drink. But even if you’re a real beer nerd (as we affectionally call each other here at Firestone), there may be a few things about ABV you don’t know. We sat down with our Quality Lab Manager Amy Crook to learn all we could. We’ll start with the basics.
What Is ABV?
In short, ABV stands for alcohol by volume. The number represents the total volume of liquid in a beer that is made up of alcohol. So, the higher the ABV, the more alcoholic the drink.
How Is ABV Calculated?
Amy explained that during the fermentation process, the yeast in a beer consumes the sugars present and then converts it to alcohol and carbon dioxide. ABV is measured by comparing the amount of sugar present in the beer at the start of fermentation to how much sugar is remaining at the end of fermentation. Our Brewery Team uses a highly accurate piece of equipment called an alcolyzer that helps with this.
Higher ABV beers are achieved by using higher amounts of fermentable sugars in their recipe. There are a few ways brewers can get more sugar in their brews, including using more grain in the malt bill or supplementing the malt with a simple sugar source like dextrose, honey, or molasses.
Can Brewers Predict ABV Before Brewing?
In short, yes. Approximately at least.
Malts come with a COA, or a certificate of analysis. This is a list of lab-tested information that tells brewers the specifications of the malt, including the “extract potential,” or the amount of sugars in the malt that are fermentable. “When writing a recipe, an experienced brewer can look at the COAs, then use some calculations to determine the amount of each type of malt they want to use to hit their target ABV,” Amy explained.
Brewers also use a method called forced fermentation to learn the approximate ABV of the beer before the full batch has completed its fermentation. Amy told us: “Forced fermentation is where you combine a set amount of pre-fermented liquid with a set amount of dry yeast and leave it room temperature for a couple of days to ferment. This will tell you the final gravity of that beer, and you can calculate approximately what the ABV will be.”
How Does ABV Relate To Flavor And Other Beer Qualities?
Alcohol volume can add a lot to the drinking experience, from mouthfeel to aroma.
Alcohol is known to impart a warming mouthfeel – so much so that some high-alcohol beers are described as ‘hot.’ It also adds viscosity and body to beer, which helps contribute to a richer mouthfeel. And yeast can produce specific aromatics at higher ABVs that they wouldn’t otherwise produce at lower ABVs, which can further differentiate high and low ABV beers.
Because alcohol is caloric, typically high ABV beers have a higher calorie content. That’s why most of the low-calorie beers you find will be somewhere in the 4% ABV range.
Other qualities of the beer, such as bitterness, are more dependent on beer style than ABV. If you’re curious about bitterness in beer, we’d recommend reading our blog What Really Is IBU?
How Accurate Is The ABV Label On Beer?
The Alcohol And Tobacco Tax And Trade Bureau (TTB) has an allowable tolerance of +/- 0.3% on either side of the stated ABV on packaging. This means that a label claiming an ABV of 5% can legally fall anywhere between 4.7% and 5.3% ABV.
Is There A Maximum ABV For Beer?
There’s no national legal limit on how high a beer’s ABV can be, but some states do have regulations on selling beers over a certain ABV, usually somewhere in the 12% to 14% range. Other states laws can limit where beers are sold based on their alcohol content, like only allowing lower ABV beers to be sold in grocery stores and sending higher ABV beers to specialty stores.
But how high can ABV go from a brewing perspective? “There are limitations with the yeast and how high of an alcohol they are able to ferment,” Amy told us. “Alcohol is toxic to brewers yeast, and fermentation is a stressful environment for yeast, so it can only successfully perform up to a certain alcohol threshold.” Because of this, brewers have had to look toward other avenues for achieving higher ABVs.
“Barrel aging is one tactic that people use to increase the alcohol in beer, like we do with our Vintage Program,” Amy said. Beers from our Vintage Program are aged in barrels that previously held liquors like whiskey or tequila. The wood of the barrels remains saturated with the liquor, and when we add our beer to these ‘wet’ barrels for aging, they pick up the alcohol and flavor from the previous liquid.
ABVs At Firestone Walker
We offer beers across the ABV spectrum to appeal to a variety of drinkers and to fit in with any occasion. On the low end, we offer Mind Haze Light, a 4% ABV hazy IPA that contains just 100 calories (remember what we said about alcohol and calorie content?). Parabola 2022, a barrel-aged beer from our Vintage Program, comes in on the higher end with a 14% ABV.
Each Firestone Walker beer has ABV listed on both the can and the packaging, but you can also find the ABV and other stats about each of our beers here on our site. Just head to the Our Beers page and click on whichever beer you’re curious about to learn more.